Politics & Government

California looks to Texas to solve nuclear waste problem

Southern California Edison announced in 2013 that it would permanently retire its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Clemente, California. What to do with the spent nuclear fuel at the site remains an unresolved issue.
Southern California Edison announced in 2013 that it would permanently retire its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Clemente, California. What to do with the spent nuclear fuel at the site remains an unresolved issue. Tribune News Service

California lawmakers are rallying around a plan to relocate radioactive waste from the state’s shuttered nuclear power plants to a storage site in West Texas after failing to secure enough political support to move that waste to a repository in Nevada.

The Texas site is owned by Dallas-based Waste Control Specialists, which submitted a nuclear waste storage proposal to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in April.

Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who represents parts of Orange and San Diego counties, said the proposed Texas site is California’s next best hope for moving high-level radioactive waste from areas vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural disasters. The waste originally was to be sent to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Issa said, but Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, successfully maneuvered to kill that plan.

Now, lawmakers say they are eager to see their second-best option gain government approval and bypass political obstacles.

“With the proposed West Texas site and other options in development, we have viable alternatives for safe, consolidated, interim storage where the community actually wants it,” Issa said. “Normally, you see a lot of not-in-my-backyard opposition, but here the plan has the support of the local community and lawmakers – so you would expect development to move forward more quickly.”

The plan also has support from California Democrats.

“While there are many different long- and short-term options to consider, I’m hopeful that we can come together around a common-sense path forward that meets the pressing needs of our local communities and utilities,” said Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento. “A pilot consolidated interim storage facility would be a safe and cost-effective first step forward for California and the rest of the country.”

Opposition to the plan from Texas environmental activists is beginning to take root, but Texas politicians have showed only limited concerns about the site, which is to be built in Andrews County, northwest of Midland, Texas, on the border with New Mexico. About 17,000 people live in the county, nearly half of whom are Hispanic.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, represents Andrews County. He crafted legislation in 2015 that paved the way for Waste Control Specialists to create the dump site. Conaway did not respond to questions about his support for the site.

“Seems like we’re on track to make West Texas the nation’s default nuclear waste dump after the one in Nevada fell through,” said Andrew Wheat, the research director for Texans for Public Justice, an advocacy group that targets what it labels the corrupt influence of corporate money in politics.

Even if legislators and government officials do decide to move forward with building a nuclear waste facility in West Texas, it would still be years before Californians would see a reduction in the size of the toxic inventory at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Diego County, which was decommissioned in 2013, and the Rancho Seco Nuclear Generating Station in Herald, which was mothballed in 2009.

Waste Control Specialists did not respond to questions about how long it would be before the company would be able to relocate nuclear waste from California to Texas, but The Texas Tribune has reported that waste relocation efforts would not begin until 2021.

That’s a long time for California lawmakers who say they’re fed up with waiting for the Department of Energy to come up with a viable nuclear waste disposal plan.

“The problem won’t go away, and sooner or later the federal government will not just have to pay damages for the delay but will have to provide a site,” Issa said. “We can’t have (nuclear) materials sitting on the edge of the ocean for 10,000 years.”

Several months ago, Issa, Republican Duncan Hunter and Democrats Susan Davis, Scott Peters, and Juan Vargas sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz reminding him that the public has poured $30 billion into the Nuclear Waste Fund over the past two decades and that the Department of Energy has yet to do anything with that money.

The department was supposed to use those funds to find a nuclear waste storage solution, they said.

“We ask how DOE is using these funds to pursue a feasible storage facility for the more than 70,000 metric tons of radioactive waste stored at reactors across the country,” the letter states. “San Diego and the nation are ready for action on safely storing the country’s nuclear waste.”

In a response, Moniz said that the Department of Energy would hold a series of public meetings in 2016 aimed at resolving the waste storage problem. Four of those meetings have already taken place in Sacramento, California; Denver, Colorado; Atlanta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois and Washington D.C. Four more public meetings are scheduled in Tempe, Arizona; Boise, Idaho; Boston, Massachusetts; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and a department official is expected to attend a San Onofre Community Engagement Panel in June.

Moniz pointed out in his letter that Congress also played a role in creating the problem.

“The Department has not used money from the Nuclear Waste Fund (NWF) for the planning activities described above because Congress has not appropriated funds from the NWF for these activities,” he said in the letter.

Maggie Ybarra, 202-383-6048 @MolotovFlicker

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